Back in the early 1990s, Norston Fontaine made a mental note to himself. He’d noticed the scraps of Formica and MDF countertops that were cutouts for sinks at one of the big box retailers. They were nice flat pieces of material that he thought ought to have some use. Then he had one of those ‘aha!’ moments when he realized he could make a good router table by gluing two of the pieces together and adding legs.
The table was the beginning of Bench Dog, a company that now manufactures a complete line of router tables and accessories. But back in 1995, they were just getting started.
As fellow founder and company CEO/CFO Karen Slatter recalled, “at the time, Norston was working at a woodworking supply store in Bloomington, Minnesota, and the manager allowed him to put the tables out on the floor for sale.”
The tables were a local hit, and next thing the partners knew, the retailer wanted to market them nationally! At that point, they were making the tables in the boiler room of an apartment building.
“I thought ‘oh boy!’ we’ll need some space,” noted Karen, “so we rented a little bit of space and then we had to rent a lot more space, and then we had an idea for another tool. It went on and on for a couple of years when we were just dabbling but didn’t have any real money to invest in equipment.”
Concurrently with the early growth of the business, Karen earned a degree in law. For several years, she practiced as an attorney by day and did the company’s bookkeeping by night. Then in 2000, she decided to give up her practice and work exclusively for Bench Dog as chief executive and financial officer. Her full-time involvement permitted Norston to devote his time to product development and help the company to grow rapidly and acquire more distributors.
“We hadn’t started advertising yet, but we sent out brochures and made calls to retailers, but never really had to push that hard for distribution,” explained Karen. “Lowe’s came to us. Sears came to us. Amazon happened because we were already selling to Tool Crib when Amazon bought the company.”
Today the company has fourteen employees, an independent sales force, and has gone well beyond using castoff cutouts for their tables. The ProTop line offers five different router tables that allow different types of customers to get the table they can afford or need with clear upgrade paths to add cabinets and accessories.
“It’s theoretically possible for someone to spend $700 on a complete Bench Dog router table with all the bells and whistles,” noted Karen, “but we like to add functionality to our and other companies’ products, without making them buy everything at once. Some of our customers love our Power-Loc safety switch, but I got a call the other day from a customer that just hates it because it’s hard to turn on. If we made it a standard item on the basic table, it would add $50 to the cost and might put the table’s price out of reach of customers who don’t want the switch anyway.”
The Power Accessory series includes products that add both features to router tables and safety to other power tools such as chop saws or table saws. Pro-Builder, according to Karen, is the company’s newest line and aimed at customers who want to do a professional quality job and yet be able to afford the tools.
The company follows two distinct processes to develop those new products. One is an in-house process where Norston or perhaps someone in engineering will see a need and frequently from their own experience working on their house or building a piece of furniture. Another process encourages inventors to submit their ideas to Bench Dog.
“An organization may have recommended us to them or they come through our Web site,” explained Karen. “Most of the inventors have a prototype, and some of them have even thought about marketing, and some have shopped their ideas around for years. Because we’re small and light on our feet we have a history where people feel they’ve been treated appropriately and fairly with their inventions actually out on the market. Trim-Loc came to us from a carpenter in Minnesota, and Panel-Loc was invented by Lonnie Bird, well-known woodworker. Nowadays we get so many solicitations that you develop a good eye for what will work, based on profit margin, usability, and how it bears on the competition.”
Whatever the source, Norston and the engineering team are very good at testing the concept on paper, getting it into CAD, and making a prototype in a very short amount of time. Marketing, purchasing, engineering, and Karen are all involved in the development process. All manufacturing that they can handle is done at the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis. Everything else is outsourced within the United States.
Bench Dog, according to Karen, has evolved an efficient, organic, holistic way of developing products quickly and with good features and and made Bench Dog a great place to work.
“We have an open book management philosophy here, and I love how the staff works together,” she explained. “Everyday is different, we’re a fast-paced company and it’s not for everybody. Things change quickly, we’re very light on our feet and the staff just throws their shoulders into it and figures it out. It’s so neat to see passionate people get so much out of their work. It’s a good group of people.”
And don’t expect Bench Dog to slow down with its introduction of new ideas and products!
“We have a cluster of tools we’re developing for the Pro-Builder,” noted Karen, “A couple of them are from inventors. And we’re fine-tuning a couple of new products that are aimed more at high-end cabinetmakers.”